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With its emotionally stunted men playing with state-of-the-art weaponry and photogenic, skirted librarians who could kick ass or devise brilliant strategies when necessary – not to mention a heart-stirring narrative about the need for revolution in a world gone seriously wrong – Library Wars boast of everything young (and probably male) audiences would crave to see. It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that Shinsuke Sato’s latest outing was one of the hottest tickets at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, where it made its international premiere after its domestic release in Japan in April.
But just as the teen audiences lapped up the film’s heavily mixed bag of action, romance and comedy, those who expect a dark fantasy about authoritarian societies – a Japanese equivalent to, say, Fahrenheit 451 or The Hunger Games – would probably be disappointed by its unsophisticated take on an Orwellian future. In a way, Library Wars lives up to its mundane title: Rather than a fully fledged, coherent package about lives in a censored universe, the film is more like an inflated tele-serial skipping from one thread to another, sometimes with its dystopian settings largely forgotten as the main protagonists’ light-as-air emotional struggles taking over.
The film should be able to do brisk business with Asian audiences who have long shown fondness of Japanese films bearing the feel of a TV serial, or international viewers seeking fantastical fare that resembles manga-brought-to-life.
But Library Wars does begin as if it’s shaping itself as a contemporary answer to 1984: A series of grainy television news footage is deployed to chronicle Japan’s gradual transformation into a Big Brother society as the government-enacted legislation that gives the state – in the shape of a so-called Media Betterment Committee and its military arm – unfettered power in censoring, confiscating and burning books that are deemed immoral.
The snippets depict a country seemingly in a meltdown: As the ruling elite increasingly takes on a dictatorial veneer – a new emperor is seen unveiling the name of his epoch as seika, or “purify” in Japanese – racketeers are seen setting up black markets for banned books. The only obstacle to this total control over media and culture is the Library Defense Force, a squadron that is bestowed with the rights to veto censorial decisions by acquiring the questioned publications to storage in the libraries they manage and guard against the incursions of the authorities.
The raison d’être of the state’s tolerance of this oddity under its authoritarian rule is never made clear, and Sato’s decision to present this media-controlled Japanese society as operating as nearly normal is questionable. But then again, such ideological and political conflicts are soon relegated to the backseat as the tense, taut prologue gives way to the narrative proper – that is, the budding relationship between a constantly sparring pair of characters.
At the center is Iku Kasahara (Nana Eikura), a rookie recruit to the Defense Force whose tomboyish veneer (she’s taller than most of her male colleagues and is seen beating the hell out of them in judo) belies the sassy and quirky traits of the now de rigueur female rom-com lead. Opposite her is Atsushi Dojo (Junichi Okada), the jaded, by-the-book squadron leader who berates Kasahara’s impulsiveness and idealistic worldview at every turn – a personality that Kasahara openly criticize as a complete contrast to the mysterious Defense Force man who saved her years ago in a bookshop by standing up for her against bullying Media Betterment officers, and who inspired her for signing up to defend libraries. (No prizes for guessing who her enigmatic idol really is.)
With this will-they, won’t-they thread bubbling throughout, Library Wars is inclined more toward a description of a battle for (lonely) hearts than (public) minds. So it is that more skirmishes between the authorities and the armed librarians are allowed to unfold – and these wars are posited as just like games, with the two sides agreeing to just engage for a certain period of time before fighting begins – but they increasingly become the devices through which Kasahara builds her character and she and Dojo establishes a rapport-turns-romance.
After partaking in yet another overnight training routine in the countryside, Kasahara says: “Since we only fight in urban situations, why do we train by camping in the open?” It’s probably a question that could be directed at Sato and Akiko Nagi, whose adaptation of Hiro Arikawa’s novel offers an imbalanced take of this story of love and/in war. This direction has led to Taro Kawazu’s cinematography as being more melodramatic and conventional as it could be, with the opportunities of providing a dank and dispiriting future largely missed.
Reviewed at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
Production: Sedic International
Cast: Junichi Okada, Nana Eikura, Chiaki Kurayama, Sota Fukushi
Director: Shinsuke Sato
Screenwriter: Akiko Nagi, based on a novel by Hiro Arikawa
Producers: Kazuya Hamana, June Nasuda, Tamako Tsujimoto
Director of photography: Taro Kawazu
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Music: Yu Takami
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Running time 128 minutes
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